The Ducks and Kings open the NHL regular-season schedule in the upcoming weekend, facing off in London (the Merry Old version, not the Canadian knockoff), with one game Saturday and another Sunday. It's about building the brand, expanding the reach of the iconic shield, and hawking a few sweaters and ballcaps to East End boys and West End girls.
For a league too often accused of being small in mind-set and minuscule in its TV exposure, it's an interesting and bold venture that proves, once more, this isn't your daddy's Original Six. For two days, the UK will be the center of the pUcK universe. An outdoor game at the foot of the Eiffel Tower can't be far behind. Get Guy Lafleur, Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau and the rest of the Flying Frenchmen on the phone now!
Further proof of some forward thinking around the NHL emanated last week out of San Jose. Sharks boss Greg Jamison, approached over the summer about a venture in the Asian Ice Hockey League, agreed to back and engineer a plan to send five players and three coaches to join the China Sharks. Yes, that's China, specifically Beijing, which is part of the six-team AIHL that includes four clubs in Japan and one in Korea.
According to Jamison, there were many good reasons to try to give the game a boost over there. Among them, he said, "Obviously, they have a few people living there." Some 15 million (about half of Canada's population) live in Beijing, which actually looks like a couple of pucks in the bottom of the bucket when compared with the country's overall population of 1.3 billion-plus.
"The idea," said Jamison, "is to help grow more and more players who can play this game."
Charles Wang, owner and governor of the Islanders, has been saying the same for years. Wang, with ex-Bruin defenseman/coach/assistant GM Mike Milbury his point man, has been the force behind building eight outdoor rinks in China this decade.
According to Milbury, who stepped down from all of his Islander duties this year and is back living in the Hub of Hockey, Wang hopes to have eight more outdoor rinks built over there this year, all part of a plan to build 40 in all.
"There are challenges, no doubt - the size of the country, the economics, and the politics," Milbury said. "But there is also unbelievable opportunity. I think it's great to hear what the Sharks are doing. Hey, wherever we can grow the game, that's a good thing. And again, it's a chance to build some brand recognition.
Meanwhile, Jamison & Co. last week were scurrying to get their troops to the Far East. Derek Eisler, coach of the Junior Sharks, will be head coach, aided by Tom Lenox, a junior coach from Minnesota.
Most of the players are in their mid 20s, with somewhat of an eclectic hockey background, including Keegan McAvoy (RW), Kevin Korol (LW), Jason Beeman (RW), Dan Knapp (D), and Zach Sikich (G). McAvoy and Korol are former WHL and college players from Saskatchewan. Beeman, Knapp, and Sikich are US-born, and all have minor pro experience.
According to Jamison, some of the players were still making their way to China as the weekend approached, but all are expected to be on the ice for Saturday night's China Shark season opener.
"It's an interesting journey," said Jamison, "and it's all kind of fun."
It is only a 30-game schedule, not even half of the NHL grind, with 15 home games, 15 on the road. The Sharks will have the maximum number of imports (5) on their roster. It is not uncommon to see former NHLers in the league, especially stocking Japanese rosters. For instance, former Bruins draft pick Joel Prpic and ex-Sabre Derek Plante both have suited up for Japanese clubs in recent years.
"The goal is to help them be more competitive," explained Jamison, whose hometown San Jose Sharks, with ex-Bruin Joe Thornton their leading point-getter, should be in Cup contention on this continent this season. "They're in the infancy of trying to grow the game over there, and we thought we'd like to try to help. It could help grow the game internationally, as well as grow the brand of the San Jose Sharks and the National Hockey League.
"This is the kind of thing that could lead to [NHL] games over there, merchandising, maybe expanding the broadcast of NHL games. There are many possibilities, so we'll see where it goes."
The polar cap may be receding, but manufactured ice continues to expand worldwide, to areas that would have been sure to make Eddie Shore wonder, where is this game going next?
Trying times for these guys
Anson Carter, whose stay in the Hub ended when the Bruins acquired Bill Guerin from Edmonton in November 2000, once again reported to Oiler camp, a man without a contract, hoping to make an impression. Late last week, he was on the sideline with an impression - specifically, a Wade Belak bodycheck that left the former Bruin with a concussion. No telling how soon AC will return.
"Not great timing for him," said Oil coach Craig MacTavish.
By week's end, another ex-Bruin, 35-year-old defenseman Dan McGillis, was also hoping to land work, called to patrol the Vancouver backline on a tryout basis. The Canucks have been thinned out back there with the losses of Aaron Miller (abdominal surgery), Sami Salo (wrist fracture), and Willie Mitchell (groin injury).
Headed into the final full week of camps, a number of vets, including Glen Metropolit here in Boston, are hoping to land contracts. The try-'em-before-you-buy-'em group includes:
Brent Sopel, Detroit - The Red Wings overcame the loss of UFA Mathieu Schneider (to the Ducks) with the signing of Brian Rafalski, but Sopel, a 30-year-old with a righthanded shot, could add depth and insurance.
Sandis Ozolinsh, San Jose - It didn't work out for Oz with the Rangers last year, but maybe he can get it going again with the club that originally drafted him in 1991.
David Tanabe, St. Louis - The one-time Bruin defenseman, only 27 years old, got another look with Carolina last season, and now he is among former Black-and-Golders Hannu Toivonen and Brad Boyes.
Bryan Berard, NY Islanders - Back woes prevented the former Bruin from doing much with Columbus last year, and the lack of a contract offer elsewhere brought him back to Long Island, where he made his NHL debut in 1996 after being drafted No. 1 overall by Ottawa in 1995.
A taste of the great outdoors
The Buffalo Bills play their final regular-season home game this season on Dec. 23, and right after the game, NHL officials will begin installing a refrigeration system for a Sabres-Penguins tilt Jan. 1 that is expected to bring a crowd of 74,000 to Ralph Wilson Stadium.
"We prefer," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, "that there be no lake-effect snow."
Really, lawyers, no sense of spirit. What's the Buff without Lake Erie's bluster?
NBC will have its cameras there on a day that, if history provides any guidance, should be around 25 degrees. The last time the NHL went outdoors, in November 2003, the Canadiens and Oilers played before a crowd of 57,167 at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. Temperature at puck drop was just below zero degrees Farenheit, leading many in the stands to bundle up in blankets.
Some 40,000 seats, prices ranging $29-$225, went on sale last week and sold out in a half-hour for the game in Western New York. Most of the 30,000-plus remaining ducats have been set aside for Sabres season ticket-holders, which rankled many Penguin fans whose favorite team plays only about 225 miles to the south.
Rumors that the Bruins will stage a game inside Fenway Park persist, but still there is no official word from Yawkey Way or Causeway Street.
The two outdoor NHL games stand to average north of 65,000 each. For a team struggling to get people through the gate, perhaps the Bruins should play all 41 alfresco in the Hub of Hockey.
A decrease in the crease?
Bruins coach Claude Julien, in charge of the Devils bench for most of last season, is among the many who believe that New Jersey workhorse Martin Brodeur will cut back his caseload for 2007-08. Asked about a lighter load in a conference call, Brodeur said, "That's the million-dollar question here in New Jersey. I've been asked every single day." Brodeur, 35, with three Stanley Cups on his illustrious résumé, played in 78 of 82 games last season, logging a record 4,697 minutes and 48 wins. The Devils over the summer signed former No. 1 stopper Kevin Weekes as Brodeur's backup, fueling speculation that it may be time to ease off the pedal.
Gordie and Colleen Howe, Mr. and Mrs. Hockey, won a temporary restraining order in a Michigan court against their condo association's cross-the-street neighbors. According to papers, the Howes claimed that Lionel and Karen Dorfman kept watch on their property with video and audio surveillance, taking as many as 17,000 pictures per day. According to Lionel, the Howes have been running a business out of their home, a violation of the condo bylaws, and the traffic related to that alleged business has often led to the Dorfmans' driveway being blocked. At one point, said Lionel, he parked his car in the street, close to the Howes' driveway, leading Big Gord to rush out and say, "What the hell are you doing?" Rather than press the matter, Dorfman, a retired urologist, retreated. "At that point," explained Dorfman, "I figured, 'OK, he may be near 80, but he can still swing.' "
A Capital idea
Looking to bump up the sale of season tickets, the Capitals had 20 players make 20 phone calls each to would-be customers last week, encouraging season ticket-holders to renew plans or sideliners to jump aboard the good ship Capital. Rugged Donald Brashear told the Washington Times, "Most of them were happy to hear from me."
Time to reschedule
The NHL's Board of Governors all but agreed last week to stop the nonsense of the unbalanced schedule that has been in place since the end of the lockout. The official end likely will come at the next board meeting in late November. The new schedule will have every team in the Original 30 playing each other at least once but will still place a strong emphasis on divisional and conference play. No longer will teams skip an entire division when it comes to interconference play. One wag's suggestion: Expand the schedule to 84 games and play each divisional opponent six times (total 24 games), play each of the other 10 conference opponents three times (30 games), and then play home-and-home with all 15 out-of-conference clubs (30 games). Note: the NHL had an 84-game schedule in the two seasons leading to Lockout No. 1 in 1994.
This land is his land
The Thrashers made a visit to North Bay, Ontario, for an exhibition game, and that left ex-Bruin Jeff "The Not-So-Artful" Odgers, who handles Atlanta broadcast duties, wishing they could extend their stay. "I might flatten the tires on the plane," mused the former hard-rock winger, a favorite son of Spy Hill, Saskatchewan. "Bow season for moose opens next week."
Ex-Bruins coach Pat Burns, battling cancer since the spring of 2004, was among the visitors to Manchester, N.H., Thursday night to see the Devils-Bruins tuneup . . . Hard-shooting Sheldon Souray, Edmonton's top UFA signing over the summer, strained his back during the first day of fitness training with the Oil. The ex-Habs blue liner, expected to head up the power play this season, finally made it into the lineup late last week . . . The Board of Governors briefly discussed expansion, with the next round likely to add two teams. Kansas City and Las Vegas are the hottest contenders right now, with expansion fees expected to be $250 million or more . . . The Penguins signed a lease on their new building, which isn't expected to be ready until 2010-11 . . . The
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.